PULLMAN – Some might assume that DJ Rodman was always set up nicely for a career in basketball. In reality, nothing came on a silver platter for the Washington State senior, who took a complex path and overcame many difficulties to make a name for himself.

Rodman developed his game gradually to become a two-way player for WSU and a proficient performer in the Pac-12. Considering his family background, it may not come as a surprise that he’s finding success on the court. After all, Rodman is the son of Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.

But DJ’s story isn’t so straightforward. This life wasn’t laid out neatly for him. Rodman is a “self-taught” athlete who worked tirelessly to create his own future, according to the person that raised him, mother Michelle.

“His life wasn’t butterflies and rainbows,” she said recently by phone. “That’s what people don’t get. People assume all the time.”

Rodman’s upbringing was far from lavish. He wasn’t blessed with personal trainers, or private gym sessions and advice from his famous father. But Rodman plugged away at it and eventually became a star in the Southern California prep ranks. He fell under the radar in recruiting, but the Cougars came through with a scholarship offer late in the process.

Rodman spent his first three seasons at WSU as more of a background contributor, scoring occasionally but taking pride in the “dirty work” – rebounding, defending, hustling for loose balls. For that, he became a fan favorite. Now, as the Cougars’ lone senior, Rodman is seeing the fruits of his labor. He’s in the midst of a breakthrough season and playing as well as anyone on the team.

“It just feels like all my hard work is paying off,” he said last week . “Everything I wasn’t getting before is finally coming.

“My four years have been a wild ride, especially coming into college as who I am and having a lot of pressure on me. I would have never thought last year that I could get on this level and be in the conversation (for postseason accolades). I would’ve never thought, but I’m glad it’s happening now.”

Rodman has started all but one game this season after making 12 starts over the past three years. He is averaging career bests in points (9.5), rebounds (5.6) and assists (1.2) per game, and shooting 42.5% from the field.

He always has a green light to shoot, coach Kyle Smith said recently, and Rodman is letting it fly from deep. He is second on the team in 3-point efficiency at 38.7% (36 of 93). Rodman has already surpassed his season-high for made 3s by 13, and he's attempted 26 more triples than he did last year.

He’s still doing the dirty work, to be sure. The 6-foot-6 forward leads the nation with 21 charges taken and ranks second on the team, behind center Mouhamed Gueye, with 38 offensive rebounds.

“I know I can’t jump with (Pac-12 bigs). I gotta use my brain,” Rodman said. “I’m not the fastest, not the tallest, especially for a forward. But I’m strong and smart, and I can use that.”

Rodman dealt with the lingering effects of an offseason injury during the nonconference portion of the schedule, but he’s been impressive since WSU entered Pac-12 play Dec. 30 against UCLA.

Over the past eight games, Rodman is averaging 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds, and hitting a scorching 51% of his 3-point tries.

“I needed to take advantage of not being at the top of the scout,” Rodman said. “I’m getting attention now, but I hope I can score the same amount of points. I feel like that’s going to happen, because I pick and choose my spots. I want to play smart and take good shots.”

Rodman scored in double figures in six straight games before coming back down to earth this past weekend – he still managed 17 points and 12 rebounds combined in WSU’s losses to Utah and Colorado.

“I just had to build my confidence and I’m starting to get over that hump,” Rodman said.

“I wanted to show that I can do this. Obviously, if I want to play professionally, I have to be a threat on offense. … I always knew I had the scoring in me, but I just hadn’t shown it. I wanted to be the guy that does the dirty work. I always wanted to make an impact, other than scoring.”

Rodman could opt to return to WSU for an extra season, granted by the NCAA in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s leaving the door open, but indicated that he’s leaning toward beginning his pro career after this season.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me next year,” he said. “I want to play professionally, whether it’s overseas or something. This could be my last season, so I’m just going to play and do me, and not care. Coming back for a grad year is up in the air, but I’m kind of over school. I just want to play basketball.”

He will leave WSU with a degree in communications. A thoughtful speaker, Rodman is planning to become a sports broadcaster after his playing career is finished.

Rodman said his mother, two sisters and girlfriend are lobbying for him to continue his schooling.

“I don’t know. It’s either go pro, or get my master’s,” he said. “I tell them all the time, ‘I’m not stressing right now.’ There are so many things that can happen, so I’m not worrying about it until after (the season).”

WSU (9-12, 4-6 Pac-12) returns to action Thursday at 8 p.m. against No. 6 Arizona at Beasley Coliseum.

“It bothers me that people think he was handed everything”

Rodman and his mother speak candidly about the hardships they faced while living on the southern end of the Los Angeles metro.

Michelle raised her children as a single mother after her marriage splintered. The family lacked financial support, Michelle said, so they stayed in a motel for a stretch while the kids were in elementary school and lived out of a truck for a time, then “went from house to house” for about 10 years, “because we’d get evicted.

“It’s pretty much out there. The bottom line is, DJ wasn’t the son of a rich NBA player. He wasn’t brought up like that. He was brought up poor. There were times we were staying in motel rooms, and living out of the back of our old, beat-up truck.

“It’s such a misconception for DJ. It bothers me that people think he was handed everything.”

Michelle made the best out of a tough situation and aimed to create stability within the family.

“We were staying in a motel, but in that experience, I wanted the kids to think we were on vacation, so I booked a room right next to the pool,” she said. “Before school, they could go swimming. They’d make waffles in the morning. At night, we’d do dollar tacos or dollar burritos and Top Ramen. It’s made them who they are today – the humility.

“Life was about structure and stability and being a close-knit family. And that’s what we’ve been.”

Michelle spent those days finding ways to get the kids to school, club practices and games, and attended every event up through high school and to the present.

“I’m blessed that the kids were good enough to get scholarships, or they wouldn’t have made it to where they are today,” she said.

Now, Michelle is almost constantly on the road, splitting time between the Inland Northwest, the East Coast and her home in Southern California. She’s a regular at Cougar games. Her youngest daughter, Trinity, is a world-class soccer forward who briefly attended WSU in 2020 before beginning her pro career. The highest-paid player in the NWSL, Trinity Rodman stars for the Washington Spirit and the U.S. National Team. The oldest sibling, Teyana, resides in Southern California.

DJ and Trinity Rodman have spoken often, quoted in various interviews, about their mother’s influence as a strong role model.

“My mom is the reason I am who I am,” DJ said. “That’s why I’m so positive, and you’ll never see me mad or without a smile on the court. My mom taught me how to be a positive person, not my dad.”

There would presumably be a burden that comes along with being the son of a five-time NBA champion who doubles as an eccentric celebrity, a longtime figure in pop culture. But DJ Rodman insists, “There was never any pressure on my name.

“My mom never made it a huge thing. It was never, ‘We’re Dennis Rodman’s family.’ It just so happens that we’re people who are known in the world. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t make a positive impact on people.

“I was always my own person. My mom told me to carry yourself however you want, but don’t be selfish or arrogant toward other people. Be happy and loving toward everyone. I will never be rude to anyone because of who I am. That’s just me. I’m a happy person.”

Michelle has been “amazed” by her son’s maturity throughout the years.

“It’s been a tough road for DJ with his dad, and he handles it tremendously,” she said. “He lets it go. ... ‘What am I gonna be mad for?’ ”

If there’s any feeling of resentment, Rodman doesn’t show it. He said questions about the father/son relationship don’t bother him, but assumptions are the irritating part.

“When I was little, it was like, ‘You must have a mansion. You must have a car,’ when really, I’m living in a motel with my mom,” he said. “I think people like to fabricate our relationship, instead of asking the real details. I feel like the real story would shock a lot of people.”

The truth is, DJ said, he and Dennis Rodman Sr. “don’t really have a relationship, now that I’ve grown up.

“It was there when I was little, because obviously, we were little and he’s my dad. But I never lived with him. He went to, like, three of my high school games. He didn’t want to take attention away from me. We’ve never talked about basketball. He’s never given me advice about basketball. Being with my single mom my whole life, that’s the lifestyle I knew. Now that I’ve grown up and realized that I can do things myself, the relationship really isn’t there anymore, as much as people think it is.”

Turn on any WSU game, and you’ll hear the father/son comparisons from broadcasters. There are aspects of Rodman’s game that resemble his father – aggressive rebounding, putting his body on the line to win possession for his team – but DJ has the edge in shooting abilities.

“It just so happens that I play kind of like him, except I’m more of an offensive player,” he said. “I wanted to be different. He did the dirty work, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, no matter who you are. Those comparisons are there, but I don’t think I play like him too much.”

Route to WSU

Rodman played his first two prep seasons at Corona Del Mar High in Newport Beach, California. A self-described “late bloomer” as a basketball player, he started to put it together as a sophomore, averaging 20 points per game that year before transferring to JSerra Catholic in San Juan Capistrano as a junior.

“My sister (Trinity) wanted to go to JSerra, a top soccer school in the nation, and she kind of talked me into it,” Rodman said. “She ended up being home-schooled, but that was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

Playing in one of the nation’s most competitive basketball leagues, Rodman averaged 16 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a junior, then became one of California’s top scorers as a senior, averaging 24.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. He also played well for an elite travel club that included future pros Nico Mannion and Josh Green.

“But nothing was coming my way,” Rodman said of his recruitment. “It was really frustrating to me. I knew the kind of player I was.”

After his senior season, Rodman was still searching for a home. He attended an unsigned senior event held by his AAU program, “and it just so happens, (WSU coach) Kyle Smith is at the showcase.”

Rodman played through a knee injury with the Cougars’ first-year coach in attendance. A day later, Rodman learned from his club coach that WSU was interested.

Cougars assistant John Andrzejek had kept tabs on Rodman during a previous coaching stop.

“John had recruited me for Dartmouth. I didn’t have the grades for Dartmouth,” Rodman said. “At the senior showcase, my knee hurts bad, but I played through it, balled out, then John texts me. … ‘Do you wanna come to WSU?’ It was one of the best texts I’ve ever gotten.”

Rodman committed on the spot. He didn’t need to take an official visit.

“I saw DJ and could tell he had a really good feel,” Smith said. “He grabbed a bunch of rebounds. He averaged like 25 and nine in the best high school league, but he wasn’t getting the recruiting he wanted. … I think people were a little scared off by the last name. But if you get to know DJ, and I was lucky there, he’s such a solid human being, a great teammate.”

Rodman’s college decision delighted Michelle, who was born in Bellevue and raised in other Washington towns Kirkland and Monroe.

“It was mind-boggling to me, because it was last minute,” she said of WSU’s offer. “We were kind of panicking, then out of the blue, Washington State called. This couldn’t be any better. DJ’s a very mellow guy. Pullman is literally perfect for him. I even almost moved up there when Trinity went there.”

“I’m in”

Rodman played 12 minutes a game as a true freshman and showed flashes of his potential as a capable defender and rebounder.

After the COVID-19 pandemic cut the Cougars’ season short during the Pac-12 Tournament, Rodman returned home to Southern California and rode his bike around the area to find available outdoor courts.

His minutes doubled as a sophomore and Rodman made 10 starts. He showed off his shooting touch, hitting 41.1% from 3 while boosting his averages to 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. But Rodman had COVID-19 for a stretch and missed a handful of games with an ankle injury.

“I wanted to make a jump,” he said. “I chose to work (during the offseason) and just made steps forward.”

His minutes dipped a bit during his junior year as WSU welcomed in a couple of transfer guards and opted to lean on a rotation that didn’t feature as big a role for Rodman, who improved his efficiency on shots inside the arc but struggled on 3-pointers.

“I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have,” he said. “Just due to the players we had, there wasn’t enough room for me. … Instead of thinking about why I wasn’t playing, it was about spending the year with my friends, coming back next year and playing as hard as I can. I know what I can do.”

WSU lost a chunk of its roster to the transfer portal last spring. Rodman could have been disgruntled with his playing time and elected to leave, but he committed to return as a higher-level player, a team leader who could set a positive example .

“He was the one guy who came into my office at the end of the season and said, ‘Coach, I’m in. This is where I want to be,’ ” Smith said.

Rodman felt an obligation to the Cougars’ staff, which gave him an opportunity when no other programs did.

“Other schools didn’t want to do it, but (Smith) took a chance on me, and that’s my way of repaying him,” Rodman said. “I was loyal to him like he was to me. No matter what, he’s going to have my back. No matter what happens after this year, if I want to get my master’s and stay or go pro, he’s always going to have my back.”

Rodman spent the offseason training at a 24 Hour Fitness in the Laguna Beach, California, area, honing his post moves . He had an exceptional summer of training, as noted by Smith, but at some point sustained a knee injury that kept him sidelined during fall drills.

“The whole summer, I had this lingering pain in both of my knees,” he said. “I couldn’t run, couldn’t do everything I needed. When I got (to Pullman), it started flaring up.”

Rodman missed the first two months of WSU’s preseason training schedule.

“It was a huge step back,” he said. “I was dominating in open gyms, then sitting out the majority of the offseason. Obviously, I fought back and showed I can still be that level of player.”

Rodman estimated that he played WSU’s first five games this year with some pain in his knees. But his improved numbers over the past few weeks are a reflection of his improved health and conditioning.

He fine-tuned his 3-point shooting behind the scenes and sharpened his scoring inside the arc during the summer while retaining the hard-nosed style of play that he used to make a name for himself early in his WSU career.

“Especially if I’m shooting like this, I’m going to keep doing it,” he said. “It’s still kind of fresh to me, like I’m starting to score the ball more. I’ve never been that type of player here, but it’s nice to finally get some respect.”

Colton Clark can be reached at coltonc@spokesman.com.